How Do You Know Where You’re Going?

From our newsletter of April 17, 2013, by Sheella Mierson    


Your organization
Does your organization have policies that are less than effective and yet have a life of their own? There can be a variety of reasons for this. Here are a few:

  • There is no built-in mechanism to measure and evaluate the results of the policy.
  • The people with key Information about the results of a policy decision and those making the decision are in different parts of the organization, and there is no reliable way to ensure that they communicate with each other.
  • Even when the right people are in the room, some people’s voices can be overlooked.

Let’s look at just the first reason, and what to do about it. I plan to address the others in future issues of this newsletter. Measuring the results of a policy is key to knowing where you are going, and more importantly being able to make adjustments to go where you want to go.

The feedback loop as a built-in mechanism
Every time your group or organization makes a decision about how you will do things, view it as an experiment, with the goal of collecting data about the outcome(s). This is quite different from predicting the future and setting a policy in place that you hope allows you to control that future. Decide (a) what the time period of the experiment is, and (b) how you will measure the results. The measurement could be metrics or it could be qualitative. Put it on the calendar, so you are sure to re-examine the decision when the time comes. The time period could be two weeks or two months or two years, depending on the nature of the decision and how long it will take to get a realistic measurement. Then be sure to follow through. It helps to also be clear from the outset who will gather the data and who will interpret it.


This feedback involves a cycle with three functions, as shown in this figure:
“Lead” refers to setting the policy in the first place. “Do” refers to the implementation. In many settings it is common to leave out the “measure” function. The consequence is that the feedback loop hangs open.

SkierMy ski trip
When I head down a path on my cross-country skis, I first make a decision about where I will go (“lead”). Then I set my skis in what I hope is the right direction and start moving (“do”). If I were to close my eyes at this point – well, wish me luck. The chances of getting to my destination in one piece and upright, while gracefully swerving past any trees, shrubs, or other skiers in the way, would be miniscule. What’s missing here is the measurement function. With my eyes open, my brain is constantly monitoring the environment and my position (“measure”) and making moment-to-moment adjustments (“lead” again, with policy changes as needed).
This was brought home to me on a ski trip this past winter. I saw two skiers sticking very close together. One kept up a constant stream of instructions to the other: “The path goes up and to the left here…. There are people on this hill, wait till they pass…. Okay, the coast is clear, you can open up.” Whenever the speaker was in front of his companion, he spoke into a microphone and the sound was amplified and projected behind him so that she could hear clearly. It was several minutes before I noticed their brightly-colored vests. Hers said, “Blind skier.” His said, “Guide for blind skier.” Wow. It was the first time I had ever seen a blind skier. And incidentally, she was a much better skier than I.

What was happening was that he was supplying the measurement function that her eyes could not. She provided the “lead” (decisions about where to go, based on his input) and the “do” functions, and the guide’s eyes and running commentary supplied the “measure” function to close the feedback loop. Elegant.

Organizations again
Omitting the measurement function in carrying out any organizational policy is akin to my heading down a ski path with my eyes closed. If the world were linear and static, that might work. But the world is constantly changing, and the rate of change is increasing. If we are to respond well to a changing environment, we need a way to dynamically steer our organizations. And that requires built-in feedback loops.

TALK TO ME if you want to know how to build in links and feedback loops in your organization for better decisions and flow of information.